New York Times

Monday, June 15, 1998

In Northeast, Bilingual Education Is Still Going Strong

ALBANY, N.Y. -- As California prepares to dismantle bilingual education for immigrant children, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are moving in the opposite direction, with plans to improve and even expand bilingual and intensive English programs in public schools.

One day after Californians voted last week to effectively end the instruction of immigrant children in their native languages, education officials in New Jersey approved new rules meant to strengthen it, including one that would allow bilingual classes for children as young as 3. And in New York, education officials are planning to train more bilingual teachers and allow some students to take college-preparatory examinations in their native languages.

But while education officials in both states fiercely defend bilingual education, they also agree with critics who say that many students learn English too slowly. That is a particular concern in New York City, where educators, politicians and parents have debated for decades whether bilingual programs help or hinder the mainstreaming of immigrant children.

The debate has spread to Connecticut, where the legislature recently appointed a task force to evaluate bilingual programs and determine whether students were spending too much time in them. But instead of limiting the time that students can spend in bilingual programs, Connecticut will probably experiment with programs that have worked in other states, task force members said.

While New York and New Jersey have a history of providing generously for immigrants, educators in both states say their embrace of bilingual education is more pragmatic than philosophical. Both states are introducing new curriculum standards and more rigorous standardized tests, so immigrant students need to learn English more quickly and thoroughly, the educators said. At the same time, they said, many students need to study mathematics, science and social studies in their native languages to grasp the subject matter and meet the tougher standards.

"It's no longer enough to finish a bilingual education program and have marginal skills," said Richard P. Mills, New York's state education commissioner. "The expectations are now much higher. So we're having a very focused effort to understand what works out there and what doesn't."

While the move to eliminate bilingual education in California has rekindled the debate here, people on both sides say bilingual education has had so many ardent defenders in the New York metropolitan region, for so many years, that it is in no danger of extinction. The teachers unions in the region are more united in their support of bilingual education than those in California. And advocacy groups for immigrants, which have waged successful court battles to expand bilingual education in New York, have worked consistently over the years to win parents and politicians to their cause.

This in stark contrast to California, where the rejection of bilingual education is one of several recent initiatives that have put immigrants and their supporters on the defensive. Politicians in the Northeast have been less inclined to play to anti-immigrant sentiments, and the champions of bilingual schooling say there is no reason to expect things to change.

"It's a totally different atmosphere out here, with divisive policies and leadership on issues related to race and education," said Thomas Saenz, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which fought to preserve bilingual education in California.

Critics of bilingual education say it is on safer ground in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut not only because of its vocal supporters in the region but also because the three states do not allow voters to decide education policy through referendums, as California does.

"The legislators would have to take on the teachers' unions, which they hardly ever do, and on top of that, they'd have to take on the ethnic groups," said Jorge Amselle, a spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, a conservative research organization that is opposed to bilingual education. "The only time you're going to see serious change in the Northeast is when you see big grass-roots efforts that will serve as cover for legislators who want the change."

Californians passed Proposition 227, which limits help for non-native speakers to a year of intensive English instruction, with 61 percent of the vote. But while a growing number of that state's Hispanic immigrants have expressed deep concerns about bilingual education, fewer than 4-in-10 of those who voted favored the proposition, in part because most of California's Hispanic lawmakers lobbied heavily against it.

Still, immigrant parents in California have protested more aggressively than those in the Northeast, who have yet to speak with a unified voice on the issue. Critics of bilingual education say that while many parents in the Northeast are convinced that it slows their children's progress in English, they are loath to challenge advocacy groups and educators.

"The parents get intimidated when so-called experts tell them bilingual education is the right thing to do," said Sister Kathy Maire, an organizer for East Brooklyn Congregations who helped a group of immigrant parents file an unsuccessful lawsuit to curtail bilingual education in New York state in 1996. "But it's very fair to say they understand that their kids are not learning English. And it's very fair to say they are greatly disturbed."

The renewed attention to bilingual education comes as immigrant populations in all three states are growing and school districts are struggling to find enough certified bilingual instructors. New York, where 18.7 percent of the population is foreign born, compared with 25.1 percent in California, spends $88 million a year on bilingual education for 194,000 students, most of whom live in New York City.

New Jersey, where 15.6 percent of the population is foreign born, spends $57 million a year on bilingual programs for 48,000 students. About 9 percent of the population is foreign born in Connecticut, which spends $20 million a year on bilingual education for 19,300 students.

In all three states, the vast majority of students in bilingual programs are Hispanic. Mandarin Chinese, Haitian, Korean, Polish, Arabic, Portuguese and Urdu are also among the most common native languages.

Of the three states, New Jersey has taken the most concrete steps toward improving and expanding bilingual and intensive English programs. On June 3, the New Jersey Board of Education voted to require school districts to monitor the achievement of bilingual students to ensure that they meet the state's new curriculum standards. It also voted to require districts to provide bilingual or intensive English programs for preschool pupils not proficient in English.

The board also changed the wording of the state's bilingual education code to encourage districts to provide instruction in English as a second language for more than 150 minutes a week, which is the minimum requirement in New Jersey.

Iliana Okum, who oversees bilingual education for the New Jersey Department of Education, said the state's programs worked because more than 90 percent of the bilingual students passed proficiency tests in three years or less. Although the state in 1996 gave parents more leeway in deciding whether to remove their children from bilingual programs, less than 2 percent of the parents have done so, Ms. Okum said.

"I think everybody is generally pleased," she said.

In New York, the state Board of Regents voted last year to allow students who enter the country in the ninth grade or later to take most Regents exams in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Haitian Creole and Korean. It also voted to require bilingual students to take the Regents English exam, which will soon be a graduation requirement, in English. Mills, the education commissioner, asked state education officials last fall to determine whether bilingual students needed more intensive English instruction to meet the new curriculum standards and graduation requirements.

"The increase in requirements is humongous for somebody who is learning English for the first time," said Alan Ray, a spokesman for the state's Department of Education.

The task force will submit recommendations to the Board of Regents next month, and Mills said they would probably include increasing the minimum amount of time -- currently 180 minutes per week -- that bilingual students spend in intensive English classes. Other goals are to train bilingual teachers in the new curriculum standards and to increase the number of teachers certified to teach bilingual classes. Only 30 percent of the bilingual teachers are now certified as such, Mills said.

He said that while some students, particularly at the middle-school level, were staying in bilingual programs far too long, most finished in three years or less. Students who want to stay in bilingual programs longer than three years must file for an extension, and in the 1997-98 school year, only 12 percent of bilingual students in New York City did so, he said.

Mills said he thought that California's strategy in Proposition 227 was "a sound-bite solution." By examining bilingual programs around the nation, he said, New York hopes to collect enough data to determine what methods of teaching English work best.

"I am not satisfied with the data we have," Mills said. "Bilingual education seems to work under certain circumstances, but they are very demanding conditions. We have an obligation to think this through because children who don't speak English, like other children, must meet higher standards."